Friday 16 February 2018

Can evil be 'pure evil' - or is evil always a misguided desire to do good?

This is an old Christian debate - as, as usual, the answer depends on metaphysical assumptions.

There is a traditional and respectable Christian argument that there cannot be pure evil, because evil is essentially the lack or 'privation' of good. This (strange) conclusion arises from the metaphysical assumption that God created everything, from nothing (ex nihilo); and God is wholly good; therefore everything that is - is good in an ultimate sense.

By this account evil is a misguided good. An example would be Adolf Hitler, who seems (when committing his greatest atrocities) to have sincerely believed (most of the time, anyway) he was doing good according to his own ideas of good.

To go further, by this account evil is a kind of insanity. People are simply irrational to suppose that they can oppose God; because, as they themselves are wholly elements of God's creation, they have no basis for opposing God's creation.

Therefore - from such metaphysical assumptions - there cannot be 'pure evil'. 


However, the Mormon Christian metaphysics allows for real evil, 'pure evil' - evil for its own sake.

God created from pre-existent stuff; and men were, in some essence, co-eternal with God - therefore Men can genuinely oppose God's creation from that part of them that was not created by God.

From such assumptions (which I personally hold) it is therefore possible to do pure evil; by purely opposing God's creation without any attempt to aid creation or any created entity - indeed to attack creation at the cost of expending effort, and indeed at the cost of one's own happiness, health, and life.

By this account the purest evil is not really such epic and infamous inflictors of human suffering such as Hitler - but spitefulness, and related sins such as envy and resentment.

This is the infliction of harm for the sake of inflicting harm - a child breaking another child's beloved toy; an internet troll writing something intended to annoy or wound; someone who says or does things specifically in order to 'wind-up' another person; or a political leader who acts to induce spite, resentment and envy in the population. 

Thus pure evil is something of which many, indeed most, people are guilty. And the most evil public figures are not those who cause the most death and destruction - but those who systematically stir-up spite, resentment and envy.


Shaun F said...

First I don't know about pure evil. I understand evil as "bent" form of good. If we put pure evil on one end of a bell curve, and pure good on the other- I think that would be a tad more accurate to better understand mankind. However, I do know more often that not our pride blinds us between what is right and what is wrong. And I think the blindness of our pride would allow us to rationalize any breach of the 10 utterances/commandments.

Unknown said...

Sharp theological observation re: the weakness of the "evil as deprivation of good" idea. My own experience and that of most of mankind hitherto is that evil is (extremely) active and an entity (process) in its own right.

Not seeing this is a surefire way to allow evil to operate unencumbered.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Unknown - Yes, and this 'pure evil' of spite is something I have observed, in flashes,in quite young children, family, friends and myself - although not in everybody.

The English proverb of 'Cutting-off your nose to spite your face' captures it well - this kind of evil will harm itself in order to harm others, will indeed sometimes harm itself fatally in order to harm others (as with some suicidal acts).

William Wildblood said...

Evil, which surely definitely exists as a 'thing' and not just the absence of a good seems to be to be the result of perverted will which results from the excessive focus on self and the active rejection of God/the Good.

And what you say about evil being manifested in unknown ordinary people just as much as great, historical figures rings true. I am thinking of a particular person I know who, outwardly, ticks all the morally correct boxes but inwardly seems to me to be spiritually dead with everything done from calculation and always with an eye on proving the superiority of himself to himself. There is no love in this person. Maybe evil is not so much hatred but just deadness to love and poetry and beauty and truth, but thus deadness is caused by coldness of heart.